IDOLS OF POWER

'"'…make us gods who will go before us…'" Ex 32:1

Part 1 of 4

They had just seen the awesome power of God destroy the most powerful army on earth. As if they'd stepped into a Speilberg movie they experienced unbelievable signs and wonders – at Moses command rivers turned to blood – frogs, locusts, flies, darkness, and death covered the land. Not to mention the split-second timing of the Red Sea opening before their eyes, providing a miraculous way of escape, then closing over the mightiest army on earth, just as the last Israelite straggler scrambled to safety.

But, there was more. God staged the ultimate 'light show', complete with smoke. They arrived at Sinai and were enveloped by a cacophony of blaring trumpets, thunder, lightening, clouds, and billowing smoke. The earth itself quaked under their feet and God descended from heaven and spoke – audibly!

Talk about sensory overload – their circuits were blown! What an awesome introduction to Signs and Wonders 101! To this point, their faith had been sustained by their five senses. They had seen, heard, and felt all these awesome manifestations of God. Moses was visibly out front cutting a heroic figure as their deliverer. But, suddenly he was drawn into the swirling cauldron of thick darkness as he vanished up Mount Sinai. Their visible leader was gone. And he didn't seem to be coming back in a hurry.

Scripture records that, "When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, 'Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him'" (Ex 32:1 NIV).

They couldn't handle two things: sensory-deprivation and delay. Moses couldn't be seen and he was too long.

Sensory-deprivation

If our faith in God is sustained by sense-knowledge, even if it is by signs and wonders, we falter when the evidence of his presence subsides or stops. God tests us. This is when we are vulnerable and look for other sources for a sense of protection and well-being.

Hezekiah was faced with a dilemma – the forces of the Assyrian army were breathing down his neck. But in his moment of crisis, "…God withdrew from him, in order to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart" (2 Chr 32:31 NKJV). God withdrew to see whether he would resort to military alliances - whether he would depend on the strength of man, or God – on the visible, or the invisible.

Perhaps the manifestations of renewal have subsided. God is testing us to see what is in our heart. Will we continue to press into him – in humility, seeking his face – waiting in his presence – hungering and thirsting for more of him? Or, will we resort to the latest and hottest church growth programs and to business as usual?

Divine delay

God may have given us a promise concerning the future. But, the fulfilment is delayed – it just doesn't seem to be happening - it's not becoming visible, not even on a distant horizon. And I'm thinking, "Maybe, it was me – I just imagined it". What do we do? Do we wean our soul from human things – from our impatience – from the nervous energy of the flesh – from the ways of this world, depending on human ingenuity, and wait for God? Or, do we, like Abraham, short circuit the ways of God by depending on a visible means and produce an Ishmael?

As a young minister I'd been invited to preach in a small struggling Pentecostal church the other side of our city. The pastor had recently died and his widow, temporarily holding the fort, was looking for a senior pastor. I'd heard the call of God to serve him and was chafing at the bit. In my zeal, I ignored the timing of God and kept pressing into their invitations to preach. They were really warming to me and it was a happening thing until one fateful Sunday. I told the story of a lady who asked Billy Graham, "Dr Graham, Dr Graham, should I wear makeup?" The response, inevitably being, "Lady, if the barn door needs painting, paint it!" Well that did it. I hadn't noticed – not one woman in that church wore makeup! The honeymoon was over, in fact, we never made it to the altar. I never received another invitation. And, thankfully, an Ishmael was terminated.

We were another four years in our home church, before God opened the door on the next phase. But, in my impatience, the ministry I could see was better than the one I couldn't see. What was visible looked so good to the natural eye. But God had something further down the track that was of his choosing.

Israel, under Moses, had already depended on the visible – on their own sense perception of God's activity through Moses 'who brought them up out of Egypt'. They were too dull to discern the invisible – that back of Moses, the man, was an awesome, supernatural, but invisible God. It was very easy then to turn more fully to the visible – to created things – to idols for their security – 'they will go before us'.

This was Israel's test case. Not out of Egypt five minutes, with the impact of the Sinai manifestations hardly subsiding and the disappearance of Moses just occurring, they turned to idols. God allowed them to experience sensory-deprivation and divine delay to test their hearts – to see if they would walk by faith, or by sight.

For the child of God, these two lessons determine everything. Failing them provides the entry point for idolatry, consigning us to the wilderness until we die – die to our flesh and to the idols of power.

IDOLS OF POWER

'"'…make us gods who will go before us…'"

Ex 32:1

Part 2 of 4

The Precedent

What were the false gods that Israel turned to? The Sinai test case became the precedent they were to follow throughout their history. Five hundred years later Aaron's Sinai speech was echoed by Jeroboam when unveiling the golden calves: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt" (1Kng 12:28; also Ex 32:4). The golden calf became the pattern for Israel's continuing idolatry. By Jeroboam's time two golden calves were officially instituted as the focus of Israel's worship. Calf-worship became the enduring idolatry of God's people so that Hosea, another two hundred years later, was still confronting it. "Now they sin more and more; they make idols for themselves...cleverly fashioned images...It is said of these people, 'They offer human sacrifice and kiss the calf-idols'" (Hos 13:2 NIV).

Baal – the Worship of Power

The calf-idol was, in fact, a young bull - the symbol of virile power. The bull was an object of worship throughout the ancient world, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, and the Phoenicians. More importantly, it became for the Canaanites the symbol of Baal, a fertility deity, and chief of their gods. As the most active and supreme of the Canaanite pantheon he was the god of rain and vegetation and therefore responsible for productivity. As Professor R.K. Harrison indicates, "...the primary concern of Canaanite worship was that of insuring the fertility of the land, of flocks and herds, and of the human populace." While his worship had been pursued in Israel since the time of the Judges it was not fully instituted until Ahab's marriage to the Phoenician princess, Jezebel, daughter of the high priest of Baal. This opened the door to a demonic influx of error and deception, which we will explore in chapter 8 as the "Spirit of Jezebel".

The Problem of Power

God's people from the beginning were called to be idol-busters. Moses commissioned them before entering the land:

"When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations...nations larger and stronger than you...Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God…" (Dt 7:1-6 NIV).

But what happened? Why did they fall prey to the gods of the nations? Because they stumbled over the problem of power. Moses pre-empted this: "You may say to yourselves, 'These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?'" (v 17). With human thinking and natural eyes they looked on the power of the nations, concluding that the mandate to extirpate pagan worship, and to serve the world as a prophetic kingdom of priests was impossible. Even so, they were encouraged,

"But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear. ...Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God" (v 18-21).

But they had already flunked Idol-Busting 101 at Sinai! Sometimes seeing is not believing. Israel had seen the acts of God, but did not know the ways of God. A senior man of God by the name of Bill Hawkins had a significant impact on us in our early years. He was trained by William Cathcart, the founder of the Apostolic Church in Australia. Bill possessed a wonderful revelation of the ways of God and drilled into us that the acts of God are known by observation, but the ways of God by association. Learning the ways of God only comes with the experience of sensory-deprivation and divine delay – where we either trust the invisible God for his power; or turn to the visible gods of power – to created things.

As with the pagan nations Israel turned to idols to secure protection and power . Protection from the elemental forces of nature and power over their enemies. The pagan gods promised to deliver. And they could be seen – and so could the enemy nations.

In the New Covenant Church

"OK", you may say, "All very informative - that was back then - but how does this relate to me?"

Paul in addressing the new covenant church applies the lesson: "Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were... . These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! ...Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry"! ( 1 Cor 10:6-14 NIV, emphasis mine).

What things are 'these things'? The idolatry of old covenant Israel! He is saying that their genetic disposition toward idolatry is just as real for us. Indeed the same testings are examples or "types", warning the end-time generation, "on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come." If God's end-time purpose of worldwide awakening and revival is to be fulfilled the issue of idolatry cannot be sidestepped! It is historically the number one roadblock to spiritual breakthrough.

IDOLS OF POWER

'"'…make us gods who will go before us…'"

Ex 32:1

Part 3 of 4

Our Working Definition of Idolatry

We cannot assume that we are "standing firm" any longer. Perhaps we've already "fallen" into idolatry but don't realise it. Let's explore how it works.

For our purpose, we will use this working definition of idolatry : Idolatry is the feeling of well-being gained from my relationship to a created thing, either material or non-material.

"From where do I draw my sense of well-being?"

There is one sure test that exposes our own idolatry. It is this question: "From where do I draw my sense of well-being?" This means anything has the potential to be an idol – a person, possession, position, or even a perception – our own self-image, or even a thought-process through which we rationalise or justify ourselves. Anything that gives me a sense of identity – a feeling of signifigance in my world, and therefore, a feeling of power.

Just as ancient Israel turned from the Lord to idols for protection and power, we too are drawn away for the same reasons. God is spirit, and invisible. Israel lost their visible leader. Even the manifestation of God's presence seemed to leave them – they were on their own in the world and needed to feel safe. Rather than live out of the revelation-knowledge of God, by faith, they opted to live by sight, and serve a god they could see and feel. They turned to Baal, represented by the bull, a symbol of virility and power. As a fertility god he would give them fruitful wombs and crops. The Lord's appeal through Hosea underscores this: "O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols? I will answer him and care for him. I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me" (14:8 NIV). Fruitfulness was the issue – it meant productivity leading to economic prosperity and, therefore, to power. Only then could they truly feel secure. Baal was, therefore, in reality, a god of productivity and power.

Idols of Productivity & Power

Throughout the church's history, the false gods of productivity and power have seduced leaders and people alike. Concepts of power and authority very quickly shifted from the lifestyle and values of Jesus and the apostles. I will discuss the church's historical roots of idolatry and human authority in chapter 9. Suffice it to say at this point that by the middle of the second century human power structures emerged which stopped the move of the Holy Spirit. By the fourth century they totally dominated. Despite the Reformation the same value system and many of the structures have been inherited by the contemporary church. Just as the old covenant church institutionalised the gods of the nations, so too, the church of the new covenant. We have, enshrined in many of our institutional structures the spirit of the world - values that are, in fact, antagonistic to the Spirit of Christ and, therefore, to apostolic Christianity.

Our whole society is infected with this idolatry. It begins in the education system's preparation for economic survival. The purpose of life is to maximize our earning power for the accumulation of things - designer clothing, split-level four bedroom home with pool and jacuzi, luxury cars, boats, membership at the fitness club, and don't forget the annual overseas holiday. I worked in the insurance industry for many years and one of the tactics to increase sales targets was to encourage agents to increase their lifestyle and stay in debt. Advertising screams at us from billboards, TVs, radios, and glossy magazines that we deserve more, more, more, and more!

Don't get me wrong. Paul could say that, "…I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need" (Phi 4:11-12 NASB). I am the first person to enjoy the aesthetic quality and convenience of good things. But for the apostle, and for us, the issue is one of contentment verses covetousness. The absence of the former opens us to the latter, and therefore, to idolatry.

Buildings, Budgets, & Badges

The same virus plagues the church. Whole denominations, ministries, and churches bow to the Baals of productivity and power. We want bigger buildings, bigger budgets, and bigger badges – all for the kingdom of course. Historically, though, these have been the church's icons of power and wealth.

It's not a lot different to my experience in the corporate world. Achievement was not only rewarded with the status of an increased lifestyle - bigger and better homes and motor vehicles, but with the badges of status and recognition by the industry and the adulation of peers. Apart from times of praise and worship, some Pastors' conferences are not a lot different to those I experienced in the corporate world. The corporation's achievements, product, and image are hyped until in a triumphal frenzy of self-belief our invincible team is ready to take on the world. We want more members, more programs, more services, more dollars in the offering, more ministries, more leaders, more buildings and more churches. And when we have more, we have success - and success is power. Denominational pastors' conferences shout loud the praises of those that are kicking goals in the numbers game. We are shouting from our conference platforms and through our glossy magazines, "Well done, good and successful servant!"

The Idol of Success

Every pastor knows the pressure of showing measurable achievement each year in new members and increased giving. They are forced into playing a numbers game. Some are more obvious about it than others. I was training in North America where my wife and I attended a conservative evangelical church of about 3,000 people. I still recall our first visit. After the service we exited through the foyer where we were stunned by a large flashing sign - "2,942 people attended our service this morning!" Compared to back home, this sure was different! Perhaps, we were just more dishonest about it. I know of a pastor who when the church was in decline would delay months or years in updating the church membership records and decline lodging them for denominational publication. We are tyrannized by the god of success. On the one hand being pressured into triumphalism, or on the other, shame. J.I. Packer, powerfully exposes the idolatry of success when he says,

"...the passion for success constantly becomes a spiritual problem - really, a lapse into idolatry - in the lives of God's servants today. ...to feel that one must at all costs be able to project oneself to others as a success is an almost demonized state of mind, from which deliverance is needed. ...Christ's agents in building his church now feel they have to have track records that show them as successes in everything to which they ever put their hand. So the imposters have a field day: anything that in the short term looks like triumph (opposition overcome, obstacles surmounted, expansion encompassed) is equated with personal success, and anything that in the short term looks like disaster (loss of money, status, job, support, or whatever) is seen as failure. Successful looking performance at all costs becomes the goal, and unreality creeps into peoples view of themselves as a result".

We measure success through a broken lens. Our perspective is not God's - man looks at the outward appearance of things but God sees the heart. Isaiah prophesied that Christ, "will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears" (11:3 NIV). Our measure of success is based on natural criteria, by the appearance of things.

What guarantee is there, though, that once we are successful by human standards that we rate in heaven. We may plant a record number of churches, grow the largest church in the city, preach to more people than Billy Graham, heal more people than Kathryn Kuhlman, and feed more people than World Vision, but what if God never told us to do it? "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness'" (Mtt 7:22-23 NASB).

"I never knew you…depart from me" – What a horrific obituary to echo through all eternity, particularly after a lifetime of service! The issue from where God sits is whether he "knew" us. Obviously God has all-knowledge and knows everybody. The issue is rather, one of intimacy, of knowing Jesus and being known by him, and of doing the will of the Father -"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father…" (v 21).

We all know about doing bad things outside of the will of God. But we're not so familiar with doing good things outside his will. According to Jesus, it is possible to do ministry, even operating in the supernatural, in disobedience to the Father. As Saul discovered, "to obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam 15:22). Like him, we can offer the sacrifice of ministry but do it in rebellion, operating outside of the Father's express wish for that moment. In fact, these ministries are described by Jesus as those who "practice lawlessness" (Mtt 7:23). Their ambition for success has driven them beyond the Father's will to habitually practice ministry in rebellion against God.

IDOLS OF POWER

'"'…make us gods who will go before us…'"

Ex 32:1

Part 4 of 4

The Idol of Church

Jesus is the reign of God. He is absolute over all that is, making all else relative, including the church. But we have, instead, absolutised the church as God's reign in the earth. And, what was designed to be a part has become the whole. We have said, "If you want God, plug into the church". So, the church, by default, has become God. Richard Rohr, the director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, picks this up,

"...the Church - just like the people of Israel - has continually been tempted to idolize itself. ...The proclamation of the Reign of God means that only one thing is absolute - everything else is relative. Everything else is a means to the end. That includes the Church... . The first image of an idol was made by the first priest, Aaron. As soon as Moses came down from the mountain...his brother Aaron quickly produced religion by making the golden calf. That way you have God at your disposal, you have God in hand, we're in control. The temptation of religion always consists in turning the tables so that we ourselves take charge of the situation. Thus the first mistake consists in confusing the Reign of God with the Church".

We have forgotten that Jesus said, "You seek the kingdom" and "I'll build the church". Reversing the roles, we build the church and forsake the kingdom.

If we truly understood this, it would spark a revolution. We now understand why pastors can live prayer-less, spiritually barren lives, but still succeed in the church system. And why, for many pastors, the church is more important than their wives and families, their health, and even their spiritual life. We can now understand how institutionalized religion can be abusive and controlling. I know of a church that doesn't give a moment's thought to the appropriateness of automatically deducting a tithe from staff salaries. A small thing you may think, but, a presumption coming out of the institutionalizing of the reign of God in the church. It completely ignores the New Testament teaching on giving as an issue of individual freedom.

It now makes sense that the religious system can be actually antagonistic to true spirituality. When we cut off God's people from the true reign of God by idolising the church, the reign of man - of power, prestige, and possessions, takes over. Strip back the religious veneer and at its core the church, the city of God, becomes instead the city of man.

In Jeremiah's day the temple had become an idol. He cried out, warning, "Do not trust in deceptive words and say, 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!'...Will you...burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house...and say, ' We are safe' - safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord" (Jer 7:4-11 NIV).

It reminds me of a game we used to play as kids called "twister". Instead of twisting limbs though, we twist words and the truth to win our religious power games. But, no amount of spin and high sounding phrases can make our particular institution the house of God. Our claims of being "Evangelically orthodox", or "capital P Pentecostal", or "apostolic", or "cutting edge" will not impress him. We can cry, "this is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord" until Jesus comes again, but it will never move God when all the while we are idolaters. The fact is – in Jeremiah's day it had ceased being the temple of the Lord and had instead become an idol.

And because God destroys idols, the fate of the temple was sealed. In 586 BC it was finally destroyed and the people went into captivity until the times of restoration arrived. And so, today God is destroying what we have called "church", making way for a restored people true to the reign of God in the person of Jesus.

The Idol of Self

We have looked at a working definition of idolatry and explored some of its expressions in the church. But what is at the core of idolatry, its internal motivating force?

The sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his research of indigenous religious culture, uncovered it. He discovered three stages in the development of religion: 1. The culture develops various traits and values; 2. It uses an animal to symbolise those traits or values, and; 3. It worships the animal in the form of a totem/idol. And if the totem/animal represents the traits of their own people group, who, in effect, are they worshipping? You guessed it – themselves!

The Western Evangelical/Pentecostal church is no exception. It has created an image of God based on its dominant traits and values. We bow to the totems of productivity and power. But these are the traits of our own people group, of Western civilization. We are therefore worshiping ourselves and have created a god in our own image.

Self is the ultimate idol of power. It places man in the driver's seat. Remember idolatry is a problem of power. Because God cannot be seen, in a moment of need we turn to created things – to gods that can be seen and used for power and protection. And, who better, than ourselves?

This explains why the therapy of self is endemic in the Evangelical church. Take a quick glance over the shelves of any Christian bookstore. Books on personal wholeness, emotional recovery, personal relationships, sexual enjoyment, prosperity, and physical fitness abound.

Both God and the church exist for my recovery, my therapy, and my support – they are there to bring me into personal fulfilment, and to make me feel good about myself. In fact, God is a kind of heavenly Dr Feelgood – even worship becomes a feelgood experience. Sunday morning worship is a time for me to feel exhilarated and uplifted. Heaven help anything that gets in the way of that – particularly the volume or music style! As a pastor I've seen so many people become decidedly un-Christian about worship – some like it slow – some like it fast – some like it contemporary – some like it traditional – some like it electric – some like it acoustic – some like it loud – some like it quiet. And some will kill to get what they like!

Pastors, rather than serve as men and women of God who, in a spirit of gentleness, exhort, rebuke, and correct become personal therapists and counsellors. The church, instead of the temple of God, becomes the temple of man – a country club, or perhaps a night club, depending on their specialty. We pay membership fees – tithes and offerings, for club privileges, and we expect service. And above all else, as discerning consumers, we look for choice – 8.30 or 10 am service – traditional or contemporary – small group or large group – seeker sensitive or purpose driven – conversational or inspirational – Sunday or mid-week – morning or evening.

The idolatry of success, the church, and of self has created a "Beast"! It devours pastors and people alike. And when it has sucked them dry it spits them out. The following three chapters (chapters 7, 8, 9) uncover the nature and tactics of that "Beast" – of the religious spirit and system.